Pop Culture: A Triptych Definition

In Reality Bites, as Winona Ryder’s character Lani is schlepping dejectedly into the open elevator after a very unsuccessful interview, the interviewer stops the doors from closing and asks a simple question: “Define irony.” Ryder does a weird giggle-helpless hiccup movement and states, “When something is ironic?” The interviewer shakes her head no and lets the elevator door close. Right before the door closes completely, Lani shouts, “I know it when I see it!”

And that, at the very essence, is the definition of pop culture.

If not essence, how about simply put?

For years academes and neophytes alike have been attempting to define what is and is not pop culture, when it started and whom coined the term. That’s all hogwash. Okay, not necessarily hogwash but more along the matters that in attempting to clarify something that is fairly simple and straightforward (“I know it when I see it”), it has become much more diluted.

Pop culture, or even mass culture to some, is simply what is popular and it sits smugly between low and high culture. But therein is where the lines get blurred: If something is low culture, can it be pop culture? Can something that is high culture also be pop culture? And the answer is yes.

Let’s take a look at Jeff Foxworthy and Vincent Van Gogh. Foxworthy is known for his redneck and trailer trash jokes, he has built a financial empire on this comedy routine. You would be hard pressed to find someone who is NOT familiar with his work and if they don’t know Foxworthy by name, they at least know his “You know you are a redneck when…” jokes. Yet because his work critiques and criticizes the low cultures, but because his work is so widely known, he straddles the line between low and pop culture. Low culture for the content, theme and subject matter but pop culture because of his mass appeal and vernacular that has etched itself into our vocabulary.

Vincent Van Gogh – same thing. Post-impressionist Dutch painter who chopped his ear off to show his love for a prostitute. Sold one painting in his lifetime (still disputed that it was sold via given away, but whatever). Relatively unknown while living and yet blew up after he died (all the good ones do). You may know about the chopping of the ear off, and you may even know the name, but most don’t know who the hell he is. Yet step into anyone one of the millions (seriously) of homes that have this print hanging on the wall, and you know immediately who he is. Van Gogh, like Foxworthy is to low culture, high culture in his work and subject matter but pop culture in reference because of the sheer popularity of his art in print work (I had read somewhere, seriously, that “Starry Night” was one of the most purchased prints available to date. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a copy hanging in their home or at least a postcard.).

The emergence of the middle class, and to simplify the emergence of pop culture, is definitely an American thing. This is not to say that pop culture is not a phenomenon in other countries, it is. Manga, for example, is a popular comic form that originated in Japan but has become in the US and has remain so for over two decades.